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Proprietary Barriers to Education

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The story about the college student who purchased an Ubuntu netbook from Dell, and who couldn't figure out how to use it, was met with the predictable storm of "well she's too stupid to use a computer" derision. Which is such a fine way to attract new Linux users! Call them morons, mock and ridicule them, and by gosh they'll drop Windows like a hot potato and come running!

But that's a rant for another day. Today's topic is about foolish schools that let themselves get locked into restrictive, proprietary technologies that cost a mint, and then they cry about not having enough budget to retain good IT staff, and students and teachers who are wise enough to eschew Microsoft's junkware face an uphill battle.

My awesome significant other is working towards a college degree almost entirely online. Her college's interface is Web-based, and it is a never-ending source of trouble. Their online courses backend is eCollege. eCollege is a big ole Windows shop, but I had a pleasant conversation with them about compatibility issues, and they say they that they work hard to support both Mac OS X and Windows, and that any standards-compliant Web browser should work. My SO does her work on Kubuntu Linux using Firefox and has no problems with it.

But this pleasant scheme is tarnished by the college's policy of requiring that all homework be done in Microsoft document formats. Sigh...but at least the backend is platform-agnostic. There is nothing super-duper unusual about eCollege, and it looks to me like any good open source collaboration suite would work fine. Probably better.

Even more fun, every new quarter begins with a flurry of incompatibility nonsense. The college's Web site lists Mac OS X and the Safari Web browser as being supported, but this quarter none of the Mac-using teachers can use the site. Why? I think it's because the college blew its budget on all of this overpriced proprietary software, and has just enough budget left to hire a single ITT Technical Institute dropout to run things. Last quarter there was a problem with the homework dropbox eating the homework. The quarter before the student logins kept getting stuck in a loop. There really is just one IT guy, and if something breaks when he's off duty, it stays broken. Which isn't all that different from when he is on duty.

Is it really that hard to make smarter IT infrastructure decisions? When did higher education decide that its fundamental mission was something other that widest possible access to learning? Or that understaffing crucial functions was a good thing to do? My tax dollars at work. I feel so proud!

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